Tips for dealing with loss
Here are some tips from grief expert Harold Ivan Smith for remembering a loved one during the holidays:
¢ Release balloons.
¢ Set a place for them at the table.
¢ Light a special candle.
¢ Before opening presents, share a story about the person.
¢ Sing or play a favorite carol.
¢ Create a holiday ornament in their honor.
¢ Visit a special place associated with that person.
¢ Write a letter to them.
¢ Create a Web site.
¢ Buy a present for the loved one and donate it to charity.
¢ Make the person's favorite meal or dessert.
¢ Plant a tree, bush or flower.
¢ Place an in-memoriam notice in the newspaper.
¢ Sponsor a cultural event in their honor.
¢ Create a memory board or photo album of previous holidays.
¢ Donate in their name.
¢ Practice tzedakah, an act of charity or justice in honor of a loved one.
John Blythe was devastated when his wife of 53 years died.
Three months into his mourning, Blythe was faced with December. Not only were there the holidays, but the couple shared the same birthday - Dec. 11.
In a time of deep grief, Blythe found ways to remember his wife, Donna Beth. He lit a candle every night in her remembrance. For their birthday, he went to New York to see his son. A poinsettia was placed at the church altar.
And best of all, Blythe's granddaughter visited before the rest of the family arrived for Christmas. They shopped, decorated the Christmas tree, sent out the cards and even tried their hand at Donna Beth's special candy.
Facing his second Christmas this year without his wife, Blythe recently took notes as Harold Ivan Smith, author of "A Decembered Grief: Living with Loss While Others are Celebrating," talked about surviving the holidays shortly after a loved one dies.
After Smith's presentation, Blythe told the audience that even a career in ministry hadn't prepared him for the loss of Donna Beth and the difficulty of facing the holiday season without her.
"I didn't know what grief was until my wife died," he said.
Blythe said support groups and his church family helped him take those first steps in the healing process.
Grieving in a world of good cheer
A significant loss of any kind can make the season that is commercialized as the "most wonderful time of the year" a tough one to get through.
"You ought to be feeling wonderful and you are not. So you feel like a sore thumb," said Smith, who counsels the grieving at St. Luke's Hospital in Kansas City, Mo.
It doesn't just have to be the death of a loved one that makes the season difficult. The loss of a marriage, pet, good health, job and even a house can put more than a damper on the season. Other holiday hardships can be the mere absence of family members who have moved away, serve in the military or are off to visit in-laws.
"Everybody's loss counts," Smith said.
Those whose jobs revolve around death know the holidays are a particular rough time, so they try to ease the pain during the holidays.
The Rev. Angela Lowe, a Lawrence Memorial Hospital chaplain, said every year a memorial service is put on during the holidays for family and friends who have lost loved ones.
Rumsey-Yost Funeral Home & Crematory sends letters before the holidays to family members who have lost someone in the past year. It offers the support of its grief counselor.
Patty Dardis, a director at the funeral home, knows how hard that first Christmas can be.
"It's supposed to be a happy holiday and you are thinking, 'Lets fast forward and get through with this.' It's too painful," Dardis said. "Getting through the first one is really an accomplishment."
When her mother died, the family broke with tradition and went to their niece's house to celebrate. Years later, Dardis still takes Christmas flowers to her mother's grave.
"Every Christmas I think of her," she said.
The first thing to do when coping with the holidays is to acknowledge their existence because the commercials and merchants won't let you forget it, Smith said.
After recognizing its arrival, Smith advises developing a strategy to deal with it.
Grievers need to decide what they are willing to do and not do. And, he advocates for people to at least try celebrating.
That might mean giving gifts, but in the form of gift cards. Putting up the Christmas tree, but not loading it with ornaments. Going to the party, but coming late and leaving early.
"It is understanding you have to enfranchise your own grief. You have to say, 'What do I need to do to be at ease with these holidays?'" Smith said.
And there are some traditions that can be done away with altogether.
"There is no law that you have to send out holiday cards," Smith said. "Particularly people who have just sent out thank-you notes for condolences."
Smith does have a few practices he advocates against. One is spending "your way to happiness." He also said people should watch what they eat and drink.
As for those wanting to reach out to someone who has just gone through a loss, Smith said don't pretend it didn't happen. And, he said, don't be afraid to say the name.
Secondly, invite the griever to celebrate with your family. And, if they turn down the offer the first time, reinvite them.
Another idea is to share holiday treats or a meal.
Smith has dozens of tips for ways to remember the person during the holidays, from setting a place at the table to making CDs of their favorite music.
Lowe recommends making an ornament in their honor, placing a wreath on the door, burning a Yule log or making their favorite meal.
"I think what happens too much is everyone is thinking of the loved one that is not there, but no one wants to mention his or her name," Lowe said.
Those still grieving need to find a happy medium between keeping the traditions and turning the holiday on its head.
Smith said grievers should try to hold on to what is most important to them, whether it's the cards, musical services or midnight Mass.
As for Blythe, it was his second time listening to Smith speak. He decided not to put up his Christmas tree this year.
"He gave me permission not to worry," Blythe said.